On a morning train from Cambridge to London a woman looks up from her paperback offering me a smile as I sit opposite her. I take out my laptop to begin writing a blog about art in the consulting room …
An older couple join us. Before sitting down the man picks up a penny from the floor, places it on the table and declares, ‘Look dear, good fortune; I’ll be lucky all day.’
‘Ooh, don’t spend it all at once!’ is his wife’s scripted reply. They’re sharing their ritualised interaction with the woman and me – drawing us both into a performative intimacy peculiar to passengers sharing confined space on a train journey. We duly return their smiles. It would be ungenerous not joining in with their warm banal exchange. They have, after all, tried to establish civility between strangers pushed together around a small table.
Back to my blog, and I’m struggling with my thoughts about the intangible heart of the piece. My eyes dart back to the penny. A playful voice in my head says, ‘Pick it up; put it in your pocket.’ A flash of excitement – thoughts rush in and the moment is gone. The voice rebukes, ‘Why didn’t you pick it up?’ The subversiveness of the creative act would now feel contrived; this is a familiar double-bind. Second thoughts come wanting to know why and what I’d be doing, their intrusiveness inhibiting any spontaneity.
The man is now engrossed in his crossword, his wife and the lone woman are reading paperbacks. The now-neglected penny has been spent as a cheap catalyst for social bonding. And yet it’s somehow become a talisman for my stuckness and creativity. I can tell I’m not yet done with it.
A few minutes from King’s Cross the man looks up from his paper and says to his wife, ‘I’m stuck, I can’t finish it.’
‘That’s not like you.’ His wife’s tone is consoling. ‘Maybe it’s a particularly difficult one today?’
Immediately a voice from a dark corner of my mind blurts out, ‘Perhaps it’s early-onset!’
I scan the husband and wife, ‘Phew, I didn’t say that out loud.’ A rush of energy rises up into my chest; the unspoken thought has mobilised me and my eyes dart back to the coin. I see my hand reach out, pick up the penny and pop it into my pocket, ‘Wow! Look what I’ve found; now that’s a sign of good luck!’ I sense three pairs of eyes fixing on me.
The lone traveller shoots daggers at me, her silent expression speaks volumes. Her cold gaze reassures me of my transgression. She is perhaps outraged by my behaviour, her discomfort conceivably much to do with her apparent inability to speak. She’s unwittingly let herself become a passive bystander, but to what? What has she just witnessed?
The couple look perplexed and smile nervously to one another. Then looking at the man I add, ‘So that’s you and me – we’re both lucky today.’ This seems to ease the couple’s tension. They let out a stilted laugh, and still the lone woman remains stony faced. I’ll not speak to her – I don’t want to rob her of her experience.
‘Do you want the penny back?’ My question takes me by surprise; I’m aware the man still hasn’t made eye contact with me. I hope my question doesn’t dissipate the charge around the table.
‘No it’s okay,’ he utters, directing his words to the table where the penny had been.
‘I won’t give it back anyway!’ With this comment I feel playful and ridiculous. It reassures me I’m not trying to repair something. To do so would belittle us both, and it would detract from the charge. It struck me that I hadn’t actually offered to give his coin back; rather I wanted to gauge the impact it’d had on him. It’s as though my mind hadn’t yet caught up with the act. The energy I felt was like a wave that swept before me, or perhaps I was swept away with it.
Although arguably I’d just robbed a senior citizen on a train in broad daylight, all of us were the richer for it. With a penny that hadn’t belonged to me a multiplication miracle had occurred, ‘loaves and fishes’; a single coin had multiplied in value and was shared among everyone.
For the rest of the journey the couple reminisced about decimalisation. I tuned out of their conversation and wondered what sort of currency the penny had turned into? It’d done more than just break the constraints of a contrived social interaction. It was the simple alchemy of play that had transformed scripted civility into something else entirely, and had, for a brief moment, made a penny priceless.
Glenn recommends …
… (not) knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
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